One Sunday morning during the Sunday School hour, a bomb went off outside a church. After the confusion had ended, the injured cared for, and the fire extinguished, four girls lay dead. As people picture this tragic event unfolding, they might think, This occurs in the Middle East all the time—why should I be concerned? But this happened at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
Since that day in 1963, America has witnessed many tragic events within our local churches; for example,
- Between January and February 2010, 11 churches in eastern Texas were intentionally set on fire.
- On Dec. 10, 2007, a gunman killed four people in two separate shootings in Colorado, one at a church building and the other at a missionary training school.
- On May 23, 2011, tornadoes damaged several churches in Joplin, Mo., some as the occupants were holding services.
These and other events, including the July shootings of young people at a summer camp in Norway, continue to affect churches. Local churches need to be prepared for events like these by ensuring that their facilities are safe, their leaders have an emergency plan, and the congregation regularly practices that plan.
The Bible warns its readers to be prepared. Although no specific passage details how churches can be prepared for disasters, we can draw practical applications from Biblical accounts. Genesis 6 tells how God destroyed people, beasts, creeping things, and birds because of the evil in the human heart. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (v. 8). The account tells how Noah, following God’s instructions, prepared for this worldwide disaster. God told Noah to build an ark (v. 14), put his family in it (v. 18), and fill it with all kinds of animals (v. 19). Because he obeyed God, Noah avoided disaster for his family and averted the total destruction of the human race.
Later, Egypt prepared for a famine by doing all that Joseph detailed in a plan to Pharaoh (Genesis 41). In the New Testament, Matthew 25, the parable of the 10 virgins warns us to be prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom (Christ). Churches are also warned in Matthew 24 of things that must come to pass, such as wars, famine, and earthquakes. As we get closer and closer to the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we will continue to see disasters that can potentially affect our congregations. God’s Word encourages us that “when wisdom enters your heart, and knowledge is pleasant to your soul, discretion will preserve you; understanding will keep you” (Proverbs 2:10, 11). Churches need to be prepared for disasters; those who use our facilities need to be safe and secure.
Churches should begin by conducting a prefire safety inspection. Most safety measures are matters of common sense, but they are frequently overlooked by non-firefighters.
- All of the exits should be unlocked, free of clutter, and properly lit with an approved exit light.
- Fire extinguishers should be readily accessible and up to date on yearly inspections.
- Furnace areas should be free of clutter, and units should be properly inspected.
- Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors (if required) should be properly functioning.
- Offices should be free of clutter, and multiple extension cords or cheap extension cords should not be used.
- Portable space heaters should be kept at proper distances from flammable materials.
- All flammable liquids should be stored in proper containers and away from buildings.
If you have any questions, call your local firehouse and schedule an inspection. This contact also provides a good way to meet firefighters in your community.
Churches need to formulate plans for the orderly evacuation of their congregations in the event of an emergency. The complexity of any plan depends on the size of the building and the projected number to be evacuated. Having a plan and practicing it is essential for a successful outcome during an emergency. Church leaders should consider the following in their plan:
- An evacuation route for each major portion of the facility (e.g., one route for the sanctuary, another route for Sunday School rooms, a third route for offices, and so forth)
- Duties of monitors (e.g., deacons, ushers, leaders)
- Designated meeting places outside the buildings
- Floor plans
- Written instructions
- Special features or appliances, if applicable
Emergency preparedness plans should consider all types of emergencies: fires, medical emergencies, bomb threats, hazardous materials, etc. Church leaders should also read “Emergency Guidelines for Churches” and can contact Chaplain Craig W. Duck at firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy.
Once an emergency plan has been drafted, churches need to practice the plan. This is essential for several reasons. First, the only way to ensure that the plan works is to try it out. After a trial run, church leaders can evaluate and improve the plan. Second, the only way to be proficient at something is to practice. During the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. was able to get 2,687 of its employees out safely. Rick Rescorla, a security chief for the company, took his job seriously, insisting that the employees practice their emergency plan regularly. The company lost 13 employees in addition to Rick, who stayed in the building to help others escape. The company’s preparedness saved a huge number of people.
Churches can practice their plan by sharing it with the congregation, scheduling a drill after a Sunday service, and asking for input from the congregation after the drill.
Times are changing, and churches need to be prepared to keep their members safe. While it is true that we should trust in God for our safety and security, the Bible clearly encourages us to be wise and to be prepared. Churches that conduct a safety survey, prepare an emergency plan, and regularly practice that plan ensure that their members are as safe as can be reasonably expected.
Craig Duck is a GARBC-endorsed chaplain ministering with the Washington, D.C., Fire Department. He and his family are members of Grace Baptist Church, Laurel, Md.